Investment banks – often good indicators of prevailing political winds – are divided. Credit Suisse and Bank of America Merrill Lynch give Chávez a slight lead. Barclays and Venezuela’s BBO Financial Services give the opposition a narrow victory.

Both candidates have much at stake. Chávez, who has been in power since 1999, says he needs an additional six years to cement his “21st Century Socialism.” Former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, 40, says the country needs political reconciliation and Brazilian-style economic reforms that protect the poor even as they revive the private sector.

“These aren’t normal elections,” said Jesús Alberto Carranza, 47, as he sat on a bench in front of a massive mural of Cuba’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “Even the cats are going to be voting.”